Descartes Centre Colloquium with Niels Martens on the COSMO-MASTER Project

Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA & STScI
Picture by Webb Telescope. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA & STScI
Portret dr. Niels Martens
Dr. Niels Martens

Losing track of the spacetime-matter distinction in astronomy and cosmology (COSMO-MASTER Project)


The tradition of a strict conceptual dichotomy between space(time) and matter originates with Democritus' atomism—everything in our universe is ultimately reducible to either atoms (matter) or void (space)—and has reigned supreme ever since Newton. It is echoed by the famous container metaphor according to which space is conceived of as a container for matter, i.e. the contained (Sklar, 1974). Importantly, this conceptual dichotomy is the shared assumption needed by the substantivalist and relationalist about spacetime to formulate their further disagreement.

Whereas this dichotomy may break down in the quantum gravity regime, I contend that reasons to worry about the breakdown of this dichotomy already appear in the context of established, experimentally well-confirmed theories, thereby following in the footsteps of Rynasiewicz (1996), Rovelli (1997) and others.

Three case studies

This talk focuses on three case studies from cosmology and astronomy, namely dark matter, dark energy and black holes, illustrating in which sense these put pressure on a strict conceptual dichotomy between spacetime and gravity on the one hand and matter on the other, and elaborating upon the consequences of the breakdown of this distinction for philosophy and physics.

Short biography

Dr. Niels Martens is a philosopher of physics, a philosopher of science and a metaphysician, specialised in astronomy and cosmology. During his PhD he focused on the concept of mass and on scaling symmetries, a book on which will appear with Cambridge University Press this autumn. As a member of the German-Austrian research unit "Epistemology of the Large Hadron Collider" he focused on the philosophy of dark matter. Dr. Martens currently leads the Utrecht Philosophy of Astronomy & Cosmology (UPAC) Research Group, the Collaborations Focus Group of the Next Generation Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, and is PI of the COSMO-MASTER ERC Project on dark energy, black holes, inflation and spin-2 gravity.

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Sweelinckzaal (Drift 21 - 0.05)
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